This month marks the 75th anniversary of the arrival in New Zealand of Chinese refugee families fleeing the Japanese. Renee Liang talks to one of the original refugees, now an Auckland GP, about the long road to acceptance.

It's a sunny afternoon in Epsom, the promise of spring in the air. Jack Fraser, a spritely 81-year-old, opens the door.

"Nice to see you again!" he says. Apparently, we've met before, a long time ago. The Chinese community is like this. Everyone knows who your parents are and what you were like growing up.

Inside, family members are waiting. Son Vernon is cleaning the barbecue while daughter-in-law Nancy multitasks, cooking and working on her laptop. Another son, Brendan, gets me a drink while grandchildren Calvin, Jarrod and Lydia flit in and out.

Jack Fraser was only 7 when his family escaped from China, travelling over dug-up roads and by boat to escape the advancing Japanese army. Now, decades later, he's written down his memories in great detail.


"I want my grandkids to know," he says.

The Second Sino-Japanese war, which started in 1937, resulted in the displacement of millions of Chinese. By 1938, Japanese forces had reached the Pearl River Delta region, the home of many of the Chinese men then working in New Zealand. The Japanese troops had a reputation for brutality, including summary executions and rape, as well as starving the locals.

The New Zealand Chinese Association and the Chinese consulate appealed to the then-Labour Government and leaders Michael Savage, Peter Fraser and Walter Nash agreed, after much debate, to legislate for the reunification of families. Under this new Immigration Act, refugees from war-torn countries were allowed to enter New Zealand.

Significantly, this included China - in an era when the discriminatory Chinese Poll Tax was still in force and newspaper cartoons regularly depicted a "yellow terror".

Fraser's father, who ran a successful laundry in Newtown, Wellington, decided to bring his family out to the safety of "New Gold Mountain". He paid a bond of £500 to guarantee that his wife and children would return to China at the end of the two years, and a further £200 in "maintenance".

Communications worked at a glacial pace in those days. It was nearly a year before the young family - Jack, his mother and his baby sister, Margaret - could set out, by sedan chair, over rutted roads, then by a series of boats. They travelled via Macau and Hong Kong, stopping in a variety of ports before finally reaching Wellington.

Although the family had fled well in advance of the Japanese army's arrival, signs of war were still evident.

"I remember seeing Chinese soldiers marching to the front, rows of grenades strapped across their chests," Fraser says. "On our way to Hong Kong, a Japanese Zero fighter plane swept overhead - I was so worried the pilot would drop a bomb."

The remains of Jack Fraser's family home in China. Photo / Brendan Fraser

For the young Fraser, who had grown up in the small village of Hor Dai in South China, the journey by ship proved world-enlarging.

"In Papua New Guinea I saw dark-skinned, frizzy-haired watersiders manhandling the cargo."

No doubt the workers would have been equally nonplussed to see a small Chinese boy staring, open-mouthed. "I became aware that humanity was a diverse mix," laughs Fraser.

The transtasman crossing was rough but, on board the SS Wahine, he escaped the confines of his cabin and ran up on deck to witness the waves, where he was befriended by a crewman who offered him an apple.

Despite the wonder, the trip also held sadness. An older sister had been left behind to care for an elderly grandfather. Although she later emigrated to the United States, it would be the last time she saw her mother. For Fraser, it was the last time he saw his grandfather and 67 years before he would return to the place of his birth.

Fraser's father, Moon Bin, met them at the Wellington dock. He had used his wartime rations to buy a huge bag of madeira cupcakes. "It was my first taste of my new country," recalls Fraser fondly.

In New Zealand, he quickly acclimatised. "I went to school and soon learned English, finding friends to play soccer with. We went to Chinese classes for an hour each day after school."

He wasn't too worried at first about losing his culture. "My father often brought out classical Chinese books to read aloud or recite from. I remember listening to him without much understanding and thinking that it sounded poetic." Later, Fraser, like many immigrant children, regretted not being able to read or write Chinese. "I don't like being illiterate."

Jack says he regards New Zealand as his home, but his roots are firmly in China.

Like many, the family expected the war to be over quickly and to be able to return to their homeland. But months stretched into years. Fraser's mother helped his father in the laundry business, with four more siblings born in New Zealand.

Between August 1939 and 1941, 249 wives and 244 children came to New Zealand. The granting of refugee status was for only two years but, by then, the situation in China had worsened and World War II was in full swing. Again, the Chinese consulate and the New Zealand Chinese Association, with support from the New Zealand Presbyterian Church and the Inter-Church Council, persuaded the Government to allow the families to stay.

Peter Fraser, who took over as Prime Minister from the ailing Michael Savage, was instrumental. It is said that he had many Chinese friends and used to be invited to their weddings.

In late 1947, local Chinese - 1408 in all, who had been in New Zealand for five years or more - were granted permanent residency. The Chinese community had come of age. From open discrimination and institutional racism finally had come acceptance, in law at least. The new legal status allowed Chinese to buy land and it protected their businesses and gave their families security. Sojourners had become settlers.

Moon Bin's bond was returned and he and his family became naturalised. In gratitude, he changed the family name to Fraser, in recognition of Peter Fraser's key role.

Jack Fraser went on to study at medical school and became a GP, his long involvement in the community recognised with a Kiwibank Local Heroes Medal in the New Zealander of the Year Awards 2011. Other members of the family have had similarly distinguished contributions.

His grandchildren, playing computer games at our feet as we talk, are regular Kiwi kids, with dreams and aspirations. Fraser watches them fondly.

"War changes a lot of things," he says. "If it wasn't for the war, Father would never have brought us out to New Zealand."

It's evident that the law change enabling Chinese to become New Zealanders has had a far wider reach than the humanitarian reasons for which it was enacted. With a stable family structure, Chinese businesses were able to utilise the greater pool of labour to thrive and expand. And the next generation chose higher education and professional careers instead of the traditional occupations their parents came from - inadvertently spawning the stereotype of overachieving Chinese.

Dr Jack Fraser was one of the first Chinese refugees to arrive, 75 years ago, on the Wahine.

Like other waves of migration before and since, it has changed the shape of New Zealand society forever. For Fraser, it's changed something else.

"With Chinese, there's the belief that when you die you go back to the homeland," he says. "For me, that belief died back in the 20th century. I regard New Zealand as my home now. My mother and father brought me to New Zealand, and they are buried here. When I want to pay respects to my ancestors, I go to a cemetery here."

He pauses. Late-afternoon sun illuminates his family's faces as a delicious smell drifts through the room - Nancy is putting in the finishing touches at the wok.

"But deep down I still acknowledge my roots as being from China."